The last chapter of that dynamic occurred after the Sixers win 120-111 about him new orleans pelicans Monday. As Embiid described Maxey’s return and performance (“he’s been trash” and “he was really bad in the first game”), Maxey was sitting a few locker stalls away. He stepped in and asked Embiid what he told the media.
“Would you agree that you were trash?” Embid said.
“Today? Yeah. But I was better than the first game,” Maxey said.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Embiid said.
This was only Maxey’s second game (and first at home) after missing six weeks with a minor fracture in his right foot. He received a standing ovation when he checked in midway through the first quarter.
But the current Maxey is far from the best version of Maxey, and that’s for a number of reasons. First, he’s coming off the bench due to a minutes restriction, something he did just once during his sophomore season. With Ben Simmons holding out, Maxey joined the starting lineup and rose to a star in the making.
For now, Maxey is adjusting to his new role as the sixth man. On Monday, he used a heating pad to keep warm during the opening stretch while waiting on the dugout. And on Friday against the Pelicans, Embiid was in top form. On a play after Maxey had just entered the game, Embiid flipped the ball to him for a quick 3-pointer. After Maxey failed to shoot, Embiid grew frustrated with him.
“I was like, ‘I just walked in, bro,’” Maxey said.
In a win over New Orleans on Monday, Maxey scored 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting from the field with two assists and three turnovers, but the 22-year-old combo guard still doesn’t have his burst or time behind.
A slow start is to be expected. Maxey, who the Sixers occasionally have to order to stay home on days off because of his manic work ethic, went through a long stretch in which he couldn’t get any exercise.
“The bone is healed, so I’m happy and confident,” Maxey said. “I think now it’s just about finding my rhythm with the team, getting back in the gym and shooting the shots I know I’m going to take, the shots I know I need to take and the shots I was taking before.”
Even if Maxey is “out of sync” in the words of coach Doc Rivers, his resurgence into the fold is crucial because he makes the team whole again. With a full deck to play for the first time in months, Rivers closed out the final five minutes of a win over the Pelicans with a lineup that had played eight possessions together this season: Harden, Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, tobias harris and Embiid.
The rationale for the three-guard lineup was for matchups: New Orleans was a longer team, with limited offensive firepower outside of zion williamson (Harris standoff) and C.J. McCollum (Melton Showdown). The Sixers went with the smaller perimeter due to the Pelicans’ lack of secondary scoring. But there are legitimate reasons to be intrigued by the advance of a Harden-Maxey-Melton backcourt.
“It’s a lineup we can go to because we think we can pick up the pace a little bit in the game,” Rivers said. “We like it better when Joel is on the court because now you have three guards who can come off a pick-and-roll with Jo. And if they help anything, you have two guards with speed who can catch him and play.
The concepts of speed and pace are big draws for a team that doesn’t excel in those areas. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers rank 27th in the league in transition frequency. And with Harden and Embiid, this is likely to continue to be a grueling half-court team.
Still, this lineup gives the Sixers their best chance to generate easy baskets. Embiid is his most impactful defender, increasing the chance of him being stopped. Maxey, Melton and Harris might be the fastest three players on the wing-filling roster. And with everyone in the lineup capable of driving the ball, there could be transition opportunities.
In this video, a rusty Maxey makes a bad pass, but only after Melton quickly shoves him into it for a three-on-two chance.
Here, Harden goes one-on-one in the middle of the floor after Maxey and Melton fill the corners.
“The thing about that lineup is we have to do a really good job of rebounding. I think we did a solid job tonight,” Harden said. “The more opportunities we can get to represent those lineups, I think the better off we’ll be.”
Playing an opponent twice in a row can mimic a playoff series with game-by-game settings. That happened Monday, when the Sixers responded after the Pelicans scored 127 points against them in New Orleans last week.
One of the adjustments came against the Pelicans’ pick-and-roll defense. New Orleans was aggressive on the weak side, putting traffic in Embiid’s face on the short roll. The Sixers’ solution? Place a player on the strong side spike, creating a conundrum for the only defender on the weak side of the play.
Harrell is a capable playmaker and Niang is an excellent catch-and-shoot player, but this setup could be even more dangerous in the three-guard lineup. Maxey, Harris and Melton shoot over 39 percent from beyond the arc. So if Maxey is in the weakside corner (as is the case below), it’s an open 3 for Maxey or Embiid rumbles down the lane.
Embiid’s brilliance is becoming routine. On Monday, he scored an efficient 42 points to go with 11 rebounds and the performance felt largely rote. He’s once again playing at the MVP level, even if he doesn’t win the award. It’s up to the Sixers to build the best team around him to maximize the fulfillment of such a dominant player.
One of the ways they can do this is with the three-guard look, which arguably has the benefit of putting all five of their best players on the court at the same time. The Melton-Harden-Maxey trio has a net rating of over 11.9 in 67 minutes this season, but most of them have come without Embiid. Playing together and doubling down on an Embiid isolate is even more dangerous with the firepower surrounding him.
“They are definitely going to make my life easier,” Embiid said. “You’ve got three great shooters, a great playmaker in James and defensively, everyone knows his job.”
Perhaps that lineup is too small to lean on in the biggest games, but the Sixers now have the luxury of finding out by playing with it. That’s because Maxey is back on the court, which pleases even the biggest troll on the team.
“It’s going to take him a while, but we’re glad he’s back,” Embiid said.
(Maxey Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)